Since time immemorial, women in society have been subjected to several stigmas at every stage of their lives. These stigmas relate to their bodily features, physical development, professional ambitions, and even menstrual cycles.
Despite residing in a civilised world at the peak of development, giving birth to a female child is rather looked down upon in many countries. A woman's battle for her very own survival against society, including her own family, begins as early as the day of her birth.
The term 'female infanticide' is one of the worst fates experienced by women, whereby new-born female children are deliberately killed by their family members. Even in the 21st century, female infanticide is considered to be an alarming issues in many nations including China, India and Pakistan.
Author David Robert in his book 'Human insecurity: global structures of violence' states that at least "half a million girl babies are killed every year because of their sex." According to a report published by The Guardian, at least 10 million female babies were aborted over the last 20 years in India.
The reasons behind female infanticide range from extreme poverty, dowry culture, preference for male child to society-imposed higher economic value of raising sons than daughters.
Tandon and Sharma's research on female infanticide in 'Female Foeticide and Infanticide in India: An Analysis of Crimes against Girl Children' reveals many scenarios where wives are forced by their husbands to murder their daughters since they are perceived as 'an economic burden'.
After fighting against all the odds, if a girl somehow survives to embark upon the next stage of her life i.e., adolescence, she is immediately subjected to the 'period/menstruation stigma/taboo'.
As a girl goes through physical transitions, instead of teaching her to embrace these changes, society conditions her to treat her natural menstrual cycle as a shameful, secretive, and unholy incident.
In many cultures, a menstruating female is considered too impure to carry out her regular/everyday activities, including interacting with other people, preparing food, touching books, and in some cases even going to schools. For instance, the practice of 'Chhaupadi', i.e., menstrual exile and use of menstrual huts in Nepal persists, despite its criminalisation in 2017 following the deaths of many women.
'Chhaupadi Pratha' is an age-old tradition in western Nepal whereby girls/women are forced into exile from their homes and reside in bare-bone huts, sheds, or even livestock sheds during their respective periods, due to their unclean and impure status. The situation worsens as most girls are forced to miss out on school either due to taboos of menstruation and/or their inaccessibility to feminine hygiene products.
As per humanitarian organisation Plan International, in Uganda, at least 28% of girls reported missing school due to menstruation while in Malawi the number stands at 70%. The feminine hygiene products such as pads, tampons, and menstrual cups are not only inaccessible but also quite expensive as they are considered to be luxury products attracting an additional tax, known as "Pink Tax".
For instance, in Bangladesh, locally made sanitary napkins are subject to a 15% Vat on their shelf price, making it unaffordable/expensive for economically disadvantaged women.
Furthermore, in many nations including India, Uganda, and Bangladesh, a girl's first period is perceived as a sign of womanhood and her readiness for marriage and motherhood. As a result, a significant number of girls fall victim to child marriage even though they are neither physically nor emotionally developed for marriage or childbirth.
Bangladesh is ranked among the top 10 countries with the highest rates of child marriage with more than 38 million child brides. Early child marriage possesses many risks including increased danger of sexually transmitted diseases, genital injuries/trauma, cervical cancer, and even death.
For instance, consider the case of 14-year-old Bangladeshi girl Nurnahar, a victim of child marriage, who was married off to a male aged 34 years. She suffered a gruesome death a little over a month into her marriage following excessive bleeding during sexual intercourse and possibly marital rape. Furthermore, to this date, marital rape is not considered a crime under the Penal Code of Bangladesh.
With the increasing number of rapes in our society, victim-blaming has become more evident, especially when the victims are women. Too often, female victims of rape are criticised and ridiculed for wearing 'wrong/revealing clothes', 'hanging out with the wrong crowd', or even 'going out by themselves.'
While this patriarchal male-dominated society continues to ridicule women about their clothes, it fails to answer why the rape of a four-year-old girl in Sonargaon by the victim's relative and neighbour, or the rape of a 70-year-old woman, occurred. Gender-based violence against women is also on the rise with women getting sexually harassed or assaulted in streets, public transports, and even at their 'safe havens' called home, every day.
The most successful societies are where they are, because of their views on human rights in general. Women's rights are, after all, human rights. Where there is inequity at levels as heightened as in Bangladesh and some of the aforementioned nations, there is little scope for economic development and SDG progress.
For far too long, governments and activist groups have sought immediate action – successfully, in many cases – to curb the negative impacts of these social practices yet, these issues resurface as more opportunities to project misogyny emerge. The solutions that should be sought are long-term plans, and these are practically impossible to devise, let alone achieve, overnight.
Addressing the root cause of these problems would require strategising education reform, cultural reform, increasing the scope of education overall, and campaigning to reduce or eliminate the taboo attached with talking about (and spreading awareness of) women's functionality in society as more than just a burden, a responsibility, or an object.
It would also require a long-term commitment to researching and highlighting the valuable contributions of women throughout the arts, history, and the development of humanity. The question that must now be answered is, are we as a society ready to reclaim our equality and our rights as humans?
Safura Mahbub is a Bar Training Course Graduate from the UK and an accredited civil/commercial mediator.
Radowa Alam is an LLB student at the University of London with an avid interest in writing on social issues.
Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the opinions and views of The Business Standard.